Consent of the Networked

I’m reading Rebecca Mackinnon’s excellent new book — Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. It’s a sobering, readable, thought-provoking work which, I’d say, will find its way onto a lot of reading lists in the next year or two. She’s had an interesting career — starting as a mainstream (CNN) journalist specialising in China, and moving later to become a scholar of cyberspace. Her work on China’s special brand of “networked authoritarianism” is the best thing we have on that phenomenon. For those who are too busy to tackle the book, this lecture and the Q&A that followed it provide a good introduction to her views. And there’s a good critical review of the book by Adam Thierer here. Rebecca Rosen also has an excellent interview with Mackinnon in The Atlantic.

Neelie Kroes on SOPA, copyright, etc

I can never make up my mind about Commissioner Kroes. She often says intelligent things about IPR, the open Internet, etc.

For example, this:

The European Union endorses net neutrality principles, which state that telecommunication companies may charge extra for some services, but need to tell customers what they are doing.

The European Commission has adopted a “wait and see” approach with Neelie Kroes, Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, stating in April that Brussels would spend 2011 “closely looking at current market practices”.

Ms Kroes promised to present the findings and publicly name “operators engaging in doubtful practices” at the end of 2011.

But she’s also part of an organisation that often seems to act cluelessly in these areas.

The SOPA opera

Last Sunday’s Observer column.

The key to survival – in business as in the jungle – is to be able to learn from your mistakes. The strange thing is that some industries haven’t yet figured that out. Chief among them are the so-called “content” industries – the ones represented by huge multimedia corporations which own movie studios, record labels and publishing houses.

Every 20 years or so, technology throws up a challenge to these industries. When audio cassettes arrived, for example, the music industry fought tooth and nail to have the technology outlawed or crippled. Why? Because it would encourage “piracy”. What happened? The record labels wound up making lots of money from cassettes as well as records.

Then along came the video recorder, and the movie industry fought it tooth and nail because it was the handmaiden of the devil – on account of facilitating “piracy”. What happened? Same story: it turned out that the studios were able to make tons of money from videocassettes, because films continued to sell long after they had disappeared from cinemas.

Since then the story has been repeated at least twice more – with DVDs and portable MP3 players. So you’d think that the penny would have dropped in what might loosely be called the minds of those who run the content industries. The lesson is that new technologies that look like threats can become glorious opportunities. But there’s still no evidence that media moguls have grasped that simple idea.

Could the Pirate party’s German success be repeated here?

Comment is Free piece by me in the Guardian.

The fact that the Pirate party has won 8.9% of the vote in the Berlin state elections – thereby giving them 15 seats in the legislature – has given rise to some head-scratching in psephological circles. And not without reason: it isn’t often that a political party takes a relaxed view of filesharing, advocates radical reform of intellectual property laws, opposes state surveillance in all its forms, evangelises about open source and then has electoral success in the real world.

The big questions are: is the Pirates’ electoral success a culturally specific blip, or a pointer to longer-term political change? Have we reached the point where the internet is having a measurable effect not just on political discourse, but also on what happens in polling booths? And could it happen here?

The answer partly depends on which electoral system we’re talking about…

Celebrating Michael Hart

This morning’s Observer column.

Michael Hart is dead. Michael who? I guess most people have never heard of him and yet if you’ve ever read an ebook then your life has been touched by him. Why? Because way back in 1971 he had a great idea: that computers could make great literature freely available to anyone. He founded Project Gutenberg, the world’s greatest archive of free, public-domain ebooks, and he devoted his life and most of his energies to that one great project.

The idea came to him when he was a student at the University of Illinois in 1971. Computers were then huge, fabulously expensive mainframes and Michael had access to one of them. On Independence Day 1971, inspired by receiving a free printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, he typed the text of the declaration into a computer file and sent it to other users of the machine. He followed it up by typing the text of the Bill of Rights, and then, in 1973, the full text of the US constitution.

Most people would have stopped at this point, but not Hart. If computers could store and endlessly distribute great texts, he reasoned, why stop at the constitution? Why not create the digital equivalent of the lost Library of Alexandria? Why not every book in the world – or at least every significant text that was out of copyright and in the public domain? Thus was Project Gutenberg born…

Steve Jobs and Napoleon: an exchange

My Observer piece about Steve Job’s place in history prompted some interesting responses, in particular an email from my friend, Gerard de Vries, who is an eminent philosopher of science. “With all the articles about the genius of Apple’s Jobs around”, he wrote

Tolstoy’s War and Peace came to my mind. This is how historians used to write about Napoleon: as the genius, the inspirer, the man who saw everything coming far ahead and who designed sophisticated strategies to win his battles.

That image was destroyed by Tolstoy.

Was Napoleon in command? Well, he may have given commands but – as Tolstoy’s novel stresses – a courier had to deliver them and maybe the courier got lost in the fog, or got shot halfway and even if he arrived at the right spot and succeeded to find the officers of the regiment, the command to attack may have been completely irrelevant because just a half hour before the courier arrived, the enemy had decided to launch a full attack and all Napoleon’s troops can now do is pray and hide, or flee. Tolstoy’s point is that Napoleon’s power is projected onto him – first by his admiring staff and troops and later by historians. Napoleon plays that he is “Napoleon” – that he is in command, that he knows what he is doing. But in fact he too was a little cog in a big machine. When the machine got stuck, the genius of Napoleon disappeared. But in our historical narratives, we tend to mix up cause and effect. So the story is that the machine got stuck because Napoleon’s genius ran out.

Isn’t this also the case with Jobs? He played his role as the genius CEO and was lucky. Is there really more to say?

The best advice to generals, Tolstoy remarked somewhere, is to publish your strategy after the battle. That’s the only way to ensure that your strategy relates to what has happened.

I was intrigued by this ingenious, left-field approach. It reminded me of something that Gerard had said to me when we first worked together way back in 1978 – that War and Peace was quite a good text for students embarking on the history and philosophy of science, where one of the most important obligations is to resist the Whig interpretation of history — which is particularly seductive in the case of science.

I replied,

I don’t think Tolstoy’s analysis fits the Jobs case exactly, for two reasons: we have corroborated accounts by eyewitnesses/subordinates of Jobs’s decision-making at crucial junctures of the story (when the likely outcomes were not at all certain); and there’s the fact that Jobs’s strategy was consistent in an interesting way, namely that his determination to keep the Mac a closed system was a short-term disaster (because it left the field wide open for Microsoft and Wintel) but a long-term masterstroke (because it’s now what enables Apple to produce such impressively functional mobile devices).

To which Gerard responded:

I’m less convinced by the eye-witness reports: Napoleon’s staff also thought well about his judgements and determination (until the French were defeated and had to retreat from Russia, of course). What IS however a good point is that Job’s name appears on a large number of patent-applications (there was an interesting report about that in IHT/NYT last week which also pointed out that this could not only be motivated by the wish to boost Job’s (internal and external) company stature, as patent offices are keen to check whether the people who appear on patent applications have really contributed to the innovation.) Jobs seems to have been active not only on the level of “strategy” but also on the level of detailed engineering and design work in Apple (and that would be a difference with Napoleon: I don’t think Napoleon ever did some shooting himself. As I remember, he kept a safe distance from the actual fighting).

The more one thinks about this stuff, the more one realises how important it is to try and see technological stories in a wider context. For example, I vividly remember how Jobs was castigated in the 1980s for his determination to maintain absolute control over both hardware and software — in contrast to Microsoft, which prospered because anyone could make DOS and Windows boxes. Now the cycle has come full circle with Google realising that it will have to buy a handset manufacturer if it is to be able to guarantee “outstanding user experiences” (i.e. iPhone-like performance) for Android phones.

And that, in turn, brings to mind Umberto Eco’s lovely essay explaining why the Mac is a Catholic system and the PC is a Protestant one.

Later, another friend, Jon Crowcroft commented:

“Well Jobs is a Buddhist and Gates is agnostic – that certainly tells you something. People I know that talked to Jobs on various projects support the idea he had a major hand in project successes. I think his early failure was a common one of being too early to market; once he got re-calibrated after Apple bought NeXT to get him back, then he had it all sussed.”

Still later: Comparison between Apple and Microsoft is also interesting, as David Nicholls pointed out in an email. In terms of market cap, Apple is now worth considerably more, but:

While it is true that Apple is doing amazingly well at the moment, and ‘gaining ground’ over Microsoft, when it comes to the total amount of money made over the years, Microsoft is still well ahead.

I did a quick bit of digging and found that Apple’s total Net Income from 2001 to 2010 (the only figures I could find) is around $35.5 billion. In the same period Microsoft’s equivalent is $119 billion. These figures aren’t corrected for inflation but that obviously won’t affect the relative amounts.

Microsoft’s figures are available back to 1991, and the 1991-2010 total is around $151 billion.

Why YouTube’s adoption of Creative Commons licensing is a Big Deal

GigaOM explains.

Making legal YouTube mashups just got a whole lot easier. The site’s video editor is now allowing its users to remix existing YouTube videos without violating anyone’s copyright. This is made possible by YouTube adopting Creative Commons licenses, offering users the chance to publish any video under the liberal CC-BY license. It’s a big step forward for YouTube, and a giant leap for Creative Commons, which previously hasn’t played a big role in the web video world.

The Dylan enclosure movement

Amidst the acres of verbiage inspired by Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday, I only found one really original piece — Fintan O’Toole’s essay in the Irish Times — in which he makes the point that Dylan’s most distinctive achievement was to privatise folksong had hitherto been in the Commons. Folk song, writes O’Toole,

occupied an ambivalent terrain between originality (and therefore private ownership) and collective tradition (and thus common possession). Dylan ruthlessly exploited this ambiguity. He treated everybody else’s folk songs as a common storehouse he could raid at will. He didn’t just filch songs from other people’s repertoires; he stole their arrangements. (As late as 1992, he lifted Nic Jones’s arrangement of Canadee-I-O, wholesale and without acknowledgment.) He did this on both sides of the Atlantic. The great Martin Carthy, who has also just turned 70, taught him Scarborough Fair, which Dylan then recycled as Girl from the North Country.

But he treated his own songs as private property: what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own. The assertion of his individualism involved in “going electric” was in part a way of defining Dylan entirely as an individual artist and therefore as the sole owner of his own songs.

We can say now that Dylan’s ruthlessness was that of any genius and that his exploitation of these ambiguities was justified by what he produced from them. But it’s hard to blame people for not seeing it quite that way at the time. Dylan was doing something significant in the history not just of modern culture but of modern capitalism. He was fencing in what had been common land, establishing property rights over a collective heritage. He wasn’t alone in this and it was part of a much bigger process. But those who yelped in pain were not entirely contemptible.

Good piece. Worth reading in full.

Copyright, copywrongs and Professor Hargreaves

Today’s Observer column.

Watching British politicians engage with technology companies is a bit like listening to maiden aunts wondering if they would look better in thongs. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, to name just two such aunts, fantasised that Microsoft was cool, and spent years trying to associate themselves (and New Labour) with Bill Gates – even going to the lengths of making the Microsoft boss an honorary knight. Then we had the equally ludicrous spectacle of Cameron and co believing that Google is cool, which is why its CEO, Eric Schmidt – who for these purposes is the Google Guys’ representative on Earth – was an honoured guest at Cameron’s first party conference as leader. Given that, it’s only a matter of time before Ed Miliband discovers that Facebook is the new cool. And so it will go on.

Cameron’s worship of Google did, however, have one tangible result. Mortified by the Google Guys' assertion that the UK’s intellectual property regime would have made it impossible to launch their company in the UK, he decided to commission an inquiry into said regime under the chairmanship of Professor Ian Hargreaves.

The Digital Public Library of America Project

From the The Harvard Crimson.

Harvard is solidifying plans to lead one of the largest national efforts to create a digitized public library.

The proposed Digital Public Library of America will serve as an open online collection of digitized books and texts that project leaders hope could one day incorporate every volume ever published.

Guided by a Steering Committee at the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the project remains in its initial planning phase. But in the wake of a New York District Court’s ruling last month against the Google Books Library Project, citing concerns of monopoly power, the spotlight has fallen on the DPLA, which will allow free access to the volumes.

There is a “need to pivot very quickly from the discussion phase to the implementation phase,” said Harvard Law Professor John G. Palfrey ’94, a co-director of the Berkman Center and a leader in the DPLA project.

The DPLA will be the product of a collaboration between the largest library systems in the nation, already including Harvard, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian Institution.

“The promise of the idea is attracting a lot of people at least to be involved even if they are skeptical of our ability to pull it off,” he said. “We have many of the biggest players at the table.”

If implemented successfully, the project will “make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all,” according to its online concept note.

Well, at least it gives the Crimson something to write about other than who’s suing Mark Zuckerberg at the moment.